Mounis Hammouda, center, a Palestinian from Gaza seeking asylum, celebrates his 30th birthday in Tucson with friends.

One of two Palestinians seeking asylum celebrated his 30th birthday this week in Tucson after being released from an immigration center 80 miles north of Tucson.

Mounis Hammouda presented himself at the port of entry in Nogales in November 2014 and asked for refuge. He was detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Florence while his case was processed.

Hammouda was released earlier this month, after members of the University of Arizona Students for Justice in Palestine chapter helped raise the $9,000 he needed to pay for his bond. He now lives with one of them close to the UA campus while he awaits his work permit.

“I feel optimistic,” Hammouda said recently as he celebrated his birthday with a new group of friends. “I hope I now continue my life, have a good job, go to school. I hope in future I continue my university, learn English, get married and have my family.”

Hammouda, who was in law school before he fled in 2011, said he’s already lost too much of his life. “I lost my university, lost my hair,” he said pointing to his hairline. “My daddy lost his legs.”

Hammouda traveled more than 7,000 miles through eight countries until he reached the Arizona-Mexico border, a journey he made with 32-year-old Hisham Shaban, another Palestinian he met in a refugee camp in Cyprus.

While Hammouda’s asylum case is still pending, Shaban’s claim was denied — but the U.S. government has not been able to deport him because it doesn’t recognize the state of Palestine, and other countries are unlikely to accept him.

The pro bono attorneys representing both men have filed a petition for Shaban’s release during his six-month review and are awaiting a response from the U.S. government, but they anticipate some pushback, said Liban Yousuf, civil rights director with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Arizona.

While Hammouda is relieved he can continue fighting his case outside of detention — where he can cook, dress as he wants and play basketball — he said he is sad that he left his friend in Florence.

“It’s difficult because I came with him, I stayed with him together in detention a long time,” he said. “Hisham wants future, wants to help family, wants to continue life.”

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo